To see women – or even men, for that matter – in India, passing an oval ball around with the aim of crossing it over a white line, is a rare sight in this country. And while rugby remains a sport which is still quite low on the popularity stakes in the country, the Indian women’s rugby sevens team have done something to fix that. The team won the silver medal in a tournament in Laos in February, an unparalleled and proud event in the history of the sport in India.

Of course, props, scrum-halves, wings are not exactly words in the vocabulary of an average Indian sports fan. And it made the success of the team all the more profound. A sport that has largely been under the radar of the casual sports fans achieved something unprecedented.

Rugby sevens is a shortened format of the traditional 15-a-side rugby union game – much like cricket’s shortened Twenty20 format. Of the six matches that the team played at the Asia Rugby Women’s Sevens Trophy in Vientiane, Laos, they won five before losing their only game to South Korea – one of the strongest Asian teams – to settle for silver.

While the Indian men’s team played their first international in 2001, the women didn’t begin until eight years later. And they have made gradual progress since.

Speaking to Scroll, Neha Pardeshi, who was part of the national squad in their very first international in 2009 and was the captain of the side that played in Laos, said that the team has come a long way since they first started eight years ago.

‘Participation numbers are increasing’

“When I began playing rugby, there were only matches between club teams but now things have changed a lot. The volume of matches has increased. Now there are competitions at the school level district level, as well the nationals to look forward to,” she said.

“Rugby was popular in only certain parts of the country like West Bengal, Kerala, Delhi, Maharashtra etc., but now other states have taken keen interest in the game and participation numbers have considerably swelled.”

A ceremony held at the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences, a residential institution for tribal students in Bhubaneswar, to felicitate the women’s team following their Laos success attracted over 3,000 excited youngsters who came to greet their heroes. And Pardeshi feels that such enthusiasm bodes well for the future of the game in the country.

Pardeshi, who is based in Pune, fell in love with the game after watching an exhibition match between a team from Hong Kong and Rugby Football Club, Pune. She was smitten by the technical as well as the physical aspect of the game.”It was just great”, she reminisced.

The Indian captain was into fencing and handball at school; however, she took a plunge into rugby at the first opportunity.

Not a ‘maara-maari’ game

Rugby, being a physical game, requires optimum fitness or there is a greater risk of injuries. In fact, the physicality of the sport can act as deterrence for many. One of the newest members of the Indian team, Ruchi Shetty, wrote in an email query to Scroll, “My mom was a bit worried about the physical aspect of the sport and that it would affect my body in the long run”.

However, worries notwithstanding, Shetty’s parents never stopped her from pursuing her oval ball dreams.

”She never opposed my participation in it as she saw I was happy playing rugby. My dad has played a lot of sports in his school and college days and that’s why I started playing in the first place. He always motivated me to play”, she further added.

The national team skipper feels that physicality associated with the game is often overstated. “When my friends first came to know about rugby one of their first questions was it being a maara-maari wala game, however, there is a lot more to rugby than the crunching tackles.

“If you are playing with full fitness and know your role in a match, the chances of injuries are greatly reduced”. She cited her own example of never suffering a long-tem injury during her eight years of top level rugby to illustrate her belief.

The ‘Get Into Rugby’ programme

In a nation obsessed with cricket to an extent that other sports struggle to garner any meaningful attention, rugby has made rapid strides in a short span of time. And national team coach Nasser Hussain gives credit to World Rugby’s “Get Into Rugby” initiative as well as support from the sponsors Societe Generale for the rise in participation numbers in the country.

“World Rugby’s ‘Get Into Rugby’ programme has been used as a tool to drive the game forward. The programme has been initiated in most states for both men and women, and it has led to an increase in participation numbers”, he said.

Hussain feels that Societe Generale’s generosity has been very beneficial. “Most sponsors support either a grassroots programme or the senior team, but Societe Generale has been unique in supporting both the programmes and without them, the participation numbers would be half of what they are.

“They are also in it for the long-term, so it augurs well for the spread of the game in the country. Talking of just participation numbers, India is No 2 in Asia and No 5 in the world”, the national team coach further added.

Hussain admitted his surprise at the fact the that there are more female participants than their male counterparts and feels that Rugby India’s insistence on taking the game to both the sexes in their school programmes has been the catalyst for the same.

“Giving the girls chance to get out on the rugby field has been hugely beneficial for growing the game in the country”, he contends.

Eye on the 2018 Asian Games

Several girls who were first introduced to the game through Get Into Rugby have broken through to age-level teams and will soon be making the step up to the national team.

Both Pardeshi and Shetty were of the opinion that the commendable showing in Laos has brought much-needed attention to the game and the mention of India’s achievement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his signature Mann Ki Baat radio show is sure to fuel the interest even further.

Pardeshi felt that the attention will also bring with it raised expectations. “The expectations (of the fans) will increase and the profile of rugby will increase. But at the same time it has also given us the excitement to work harder and do even better”.

One common refrain from the players as well as the coach has been that the Indian players are the smallest in size of all their competitors. However, to compensate for the disadvantage the focus has been on improving strength and technical part of the game.

The coaching team is now focused on high performance training for the Under-18 and Under-20 teams, with the former participating in a tournament in Dubai towards the end of the year. For the senior team, the Asian Games in 2018 in Jakarta is the main focus where their participation will hinge on improving their current ranking (10 in Asia, according to Hussain) as well as an approval from the Indian Olympic Association.

No matter where the Indian team turn up next, there is surely going to be more eyeballs back home, tracking their progress on the rugby pitch.